# 2.9: Print

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In general, the Renaissance did not coincide with a great period of technological advances. There was one momentous exception: the proliferation of the movable-type printing press. Not until the invention of the typewriter in the late nineteenth century and the Internet in the late twentieth century would comparable changes to the diffusion of information come about. Print vastly increased the rate at which information could be shared, and underwrote the rise in literacy of the early modern period. In Europe, the production of text moved away from a “scribal” tradition in which educated people hand-copied important texts toward a system of mass production.

Prior to the Renaissance, there had been some major technological advances. The agricultural revolution had been brought about by the use of heavier plows, new harnesses, crop rotation, etc. Likewise, warfare was influenced by the introduction of the stirrup and a “gunpowder revolution” (described in more detail later.) However, print introduced a revolution in ideas.

The printing press works by coating a three-dimensional impression of an image or text with ink, then pressing that ink onto paper. First invented in China and used in Korea and parts of Central Asia, there is no direct evidence that the concept was transmitted from Asia to Europe. In the late 1440s, a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg struck on the idea of carving individual letters into small, movable blocks of wood (or castings in metal) that could be rearranged as necessary to create words. This movable type made it simple to rearrange the letters to print subsequent pages. Thus, an entire book could be printed with clear, readable letters, and at a fraction of the cost of hand-copying.

After developing a working prototype, Gutenberg created the first true printed book to reach the mass market, a copy of the Latin Vulgate (the official version of the Bible used by the Church). Later dubbed the “Gutenberg Bible,” it became the world’s first “best-seller” in 1455. By being printed, church officials thought that errors were far less likely to be introduced as compared to hand-copying. Likewise, purchasing a printed Bible became cheaper.

Printing spread quickly. Within about twenty years, there were printing presses in all of the major cities in Western and Southern Europe. By 1500, about fifty years after its invention, the printing press had already largely replaced the scribal tradition in book production. However, there was a notable lengthy delay in its diffusion to Eastern Europe, especially Russia. Presses tended to operate in large cities and smaller independent cities, especially in the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, the free cities of the German lands and Italy were as likely to host a press as were larger capital cities like Paris and Rome.

In 1461, Gutenberg invented printed illustrations using carved blocks that were sized to fit alongside movable type. Even when people could not read, they could look at pamphlets and posters (called “broadsides”) with illustrations. Within decades, cheap printed posters and pamphlets were commonplace in the major cities and towns, often shared and read aloud in public gatherings and taverns. Thus, even the illiterate enjoyed increased access to information.

Not all writing shifted to print. A scribal tradition continued in the production of official documents and luxury items. Likewise, personal correspondence and business transactions remained hand-written. The legacy of good penmanship survived well into the twentieth century. Nevertheless, by the late fifteenth century, whenever a text could be printed to serve a political purpose or to generate a profit, it almost certainly would be.

There were unanticipated issues that arose because of print. Written material could not be mass-produced, so the only ideas that spread quickly did so through word of mouth. Print made censorship much more difficult and much more important, since now anyone could print just about anything. As early as the 1460s, a work that advocated the pursuit of salvation without reference to the church entitled The Imitation of Christ was produced. The Catholic Church would eventually (in 1571) introduce an official Index of Prohibited Books, but several works were already banned by the time the Index was created.

Print also began the process of standardizing language itself, so that people in different parts of “France” or “England” were able to read the same works and understand the grammar and meaning. For the first time, the concept of proper spelling emerged.

2.9: Print is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.